Department of Educational Administration


Date of this Version



A DISSERTATION Submitted to Michigan State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education- Doctor of Philosophy, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Christina Wai-Tze Yao


Despite the large number of international students from China in U.S. higher education, little research exists on these students’ perceptions of the racial climate in residence halls. This research study illuminates the experiences affecting the sense of belonging of first-year Chinese international students and provides insights on how these students perceive the climate within their new collegiate ‘home’. I used a phenomenological orientation to understand participants’ lived experiences. A critical lens was used to analyze and examine the contextual influences on the participants’ experiences.

This study is centered on understanding how undergraduate Chinese international students’ experiences with domestic students affected the Chinese students’ understanding of their sense of belonging in their residential communities. The study participants’ perceptions of barriers to their sense of belonging are addressed in this study. In addition, the participants’ perceptions of racial climate in residence halls are investigated. All of these factors illuminate the Chinese international participants’ sense of belonging in their residence halls. This study is guided by Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, and Allen’s (1999) framework for understanding the elements affecting campus climate for racial/ethnic diversity, with an emphasis on how these elements interact to affect student’s sense of belonging, or perceived affiliation and connectedness, to their residence halls at Michigan State University.

The study’s findings provided insights on the challenges that Chinese international students faced when navigating a foreign environment. Cultural differences and language barriers were the most salient issues affecting Chinese students’ sense of belonging in the residence halls. The participants’ lived experiences emphasized the importance of social interactions between Chinese students and their domestic peers. Language played a role in the intergroup interactions, specifically either a bridge or a barrier to Chinese students’ connections to domestic students. Roommate and floormate relationships were also explored, with an examination of how these relationships as either served as a cultural bridge or led to discomfort in the residence halls. Overall, cultural tensions and language barriers emerged as important factors in Chinese students’ sense of belonging.

In addition to interpersonal relationships, participants provided insights on their cognitive evaluations of their interactions with other students. Participants’ perceptions of their outsider status on campus were highlighted, including these students’ perception of language ability, feelings of discrimination and isolation, and awareness of being an outsider. The student participants recognized that as international students, they were considered foreign outsiders by domestic students, which affected their ability to “fit in” with American students. Again, language was an issue that affected all aspects of participants’ experiences, including any perceived hostility from domestic students. The participants’ sense of belonging was negatively impacted by incidents of discrimination and feelings of being an outsider.

I conclude by offering suggestions for practice, policy, and future research on undergraduate Chinese international students. The implications from this study indicated a critical need for university staff to examine campus culture and climate in order to facilitate academic and social success for Chinese international students.